94 Interview with Prime Minister Peres on Israel Television- 2 October 1985

94 Interview with Prime Minister Peres on Israel Television- 2 October 1985


 VOLUME 9-10: 1984-1988

94. Interview with Prime Minister Peres on Israel Television, 2 October 1985.

Mr. Peres dealt at length with the repercussions of the raid on Tunis and denied that it had any connection to a recent Hussein speech to the United Nations General Assembly. President Reagan initially stated that the Israeli air strike was "understandable as an expression of self-defense" A day later the White House said that while the attack was understandable, the U.S. could not condone the bombing. President Mubarak was very sharp in his criticism and suspended the talks on Taba. Sharp criticism was levelled at Israel by various European leaders. Mr. Peres also referred to Hussein's 27 September 1985 UN speech, in which he stated that Jordan "was prepared to negotiate, under appropriate auspices, with the government of Israel, promptly and directly, under the basic tenets of Security Council Resolution 242 and 338. " Mr. Shamir felt there was nothing new in the offer. Following is the full text of the interview:

Q: The decision on the Tunis attack was taken before King Hussein's U.N. speech. did you consider calling off the operation in the wake of his speech?

A: No, because I differentiate between relations with Jordan and the war on PLO terrorism. I have always felt this difference. You should bear in mind that the Larnaca operation was not only an attack on Israel but also a torpedo fired at Hussein and at Mubarak, who were in the United States. I am convinced that the perpetrators of that crime were aware of the political timing.

Q: Do we know for certain that the perpetrators came from "Force 17"?

A: No, he was captured on a different occasion. There were three seizures [of terrorist boats] - two of yachts and one of the deputy commander. From among the prisoners they identified the three terrorists - who gave incorrect details to the Cypriots - they identified their faces, they said 'these men belong to our force,' they gave us their names, they told us where they came from. And if even the slightest doubt had remained - which it didn't - they put, let us say, the final seal on the fact that it was "Force 17."

Q: Was the British prisoner in Cyprus also part of the PLO's "Force 17"?

A: Yes. According to our information, he was active in "Force 17" for over two years, nearly three years; he was known and was identified.

Q: Are there other foreign nationals active in this force, according to the information you have?

A: I can't answer that. At this moment I don't know. I must be cautious in my reply, I don't have enough details.

Q: The fact that he is British is very interesting given the fact that Mrs. Thatcher is about to invite two PLO people to hold talks in Britain.

A: Yes, and here also there is a story within a story. She is inviting Milhem and Bishop Khoury. Bishop Khoury was apprehended while smuggling sabotage devices from Jordan to Israel at least twice. One of the two devices went off near the British Consulate in Jerusalem, so that he's had contact with the British even before this.

Q: Does the government of Israel have an interest in hitting Yasser Arafat personally?

A: I'm not so sure about that: The war is against the organization, as long as it engages in terrorism. You mean a physical strike - I don't think we have any special interest in hitting any specific leader.

Q: Why, if he heads an organization of murderers?

A: Someone else will come in his place. In general, the problem of personal terrorism is very complex, and a state is usually careful not to get involved in personal terrorism.

Q: Were we careful this time, too, not to hit Yasser Arafat and the other commanders?

A: When we set the date for the operation, we couldn't know exactly who would be where. In other words, this operation too wasn't designed to strike at any specific person. It was designed to strike at two main targets: At the headquarters of "Force 17," whose precise location we knew - and it was in fact destroyed - and a good many of those killed were commanders in "Force 17"; and the second target of this bombing was the operations division, meaning the PLO's terrorist division. And these two buildings were in fact destroyed in a direct, very responsible strike - that is, without others being hurt. The Air Force once again proved itself. You know, today is the 99th birthday of David Ben-Gurion, may he rest in peace. All day I was thinking, if he were with us how proud he would be of these air force pilots, of this young generation which is capable of carrying out actions which appear to be impossible with extraordinary skill, with exceptional dedication, with resourceful planning. From this point of view it was a birthday - for me at least - marked by a feeling that there were those who were carrying on with the path of the IDF which Ben-Gurion so loved and which he built.

Q: Jordan, too, is harboring terrorist headquarters, from where orders are issued for attacks on Israel. Why, then, Tunisia and not Jordan?

A: There are differences here which you don't perceive when you speak in broad generalities. But there are a number of key differences which should be pointed out: Jordan as a state fights terrorism actively; Jordan as a state does not permit terrorists to cross the Jordan [river]; Jordan as a state does not permit terrorist bases against Israel to be established in its territory. True, PLO commanders are to be found in Jordan from time to time who also engage in terrorism - and we are exerting pressure on this matter as well, so that they won't be there. But it's impossible to say that Jordan is neutral vis-a-vis terrorism. Ever since September 1970, when they expelled all the terrorists, Jordan hasn't allowed the PLO to establish its own terrorist bases on Jordanian soil. And ever since then, Jordan on its side of the river and we on our side, see to it that there is no harassment of their country or of our country.

In contrast, Tunisia in fact gave an independent, extraterritorial area to the PLO. Today the PLO claims that people were killed who were in the PLO's prison there - meaning that there is even an independent PLO prison there. The PLO's base is not subject to the laws of Tunisia, to its political considerations, and in broad daylight and on an ongoing basis if plans attack operations against Israeli civilians, Jewish civilians, Israeli targets. Under international law Tunisia is duty-bound to prevent terrorist acts from within its borders against other countries. The very fact that an extraterritorial terrorist organization is permitted to strike at other countries contravenes international law. Israel, however, acted under international law, because this was a salient act of self-defense.

Q: One may assume that the possibility of striking at Jordan was considered, but at this time King Hussein is in the U.S. - perhaps you recoil from striking at Jordan because of your desire to strive for a political settlement with it. Are these assumptions correct?

A: Certainly not. Why should I always have to agonize and justify myself? 1, along with my colleagues, analyze coldly where to operate. No one suggested an operation against Jordan. The proposals were for an operation against the PLO and its centers. The consideration was then where the true center was, the permanent center, the active center.

Q: Is there a lesson King Hussein might learn from the Tunis operation?

A: In my estimation Hussein is not happy with Arafat's entire activity. It is my appraisal that inwardly the Jordanians are also constantly in doubt as to whether the PLO and Arafat really mean what they say. It's really far from certain. Because if they say they are bent on peace and negotiations and want U.S. recognition, how is it that at the very moment, at the very height of Hussein's effort to win over American public opinion, they stick a pin into the most sensitive balloon? So I'm certain that Jordan must also have its own considerations - which are far from simple -regarding this operation.

Q: What are the bounds of your responsibility as prime minister for the safety of Jews and Israelis around the world?

A: The government of Israel and I as prime minister must see to the safety of all Israeli citizens, irrespective of nationality, and of all Jews in the world, irrespective of their citizenship - if they are harmed as Israelis or as Jews because they are Israelis or because they are Jews.

Q: I would like to ask you a question which the small opposition would probably now ask: What was the purpose of the operation? Was it revenge for the Larnaca attack? Can such an operation really end terrorism?

A: Since you have placed me in the opposition for a short time...

Q: I asked a question as though...

A: I take it in a good spirit... I will place you in the Arab camp for a short time. Imagine that you are an Arab, let's say a PLO man, and you murder three innocent Israelis - in broad daylight, using a pistol with a silencer, you just shoot them in the back - and Israel doesn't react. What would you think? That Israeli blood is up for grabs. You'd say, 'fine, we can go to the trailers, the yachts, the boats, on land, and kill people.' Why do we imprison murderers? What is the political purpose? That's one question. Secondly, imagine the Arab world: It's possible that there are Arabs - and I assume there are such - who know that Arafat is bluffing, so to speak (I just don't want to say 'lying). But if Israel doesn't care, why should they care? The Arab statesmen should also know that if this gentleman goes on engaging in terrorism, Israel will not sit idly by, it will not panic. The third thing is that Tunisia should also understand something: Tunisia is not our enemy. On the contrary, it is a moderate state, Bourguiba was among the first who proposed recognizing Israel. But let's look at the Middle East map. Arafat almost destroyed Jordan; if Hussein hadn't thrown him out in September 1970, in my view Jordan would have become Lebanon. Then the PLO destroyed Lebanon. And I believe it is also liable to endanger Tunisia, because the moment the PLO comes, as a terrorist organization, and asks for the prerogatives of a state within a state, a terrorist state within a law-abiding state, then an intolerable situation begins to emerge. Therefore in my view Israel had to react, first to say to the murderers, 'gentlemen, anyone who commits murder will find himself in danger. We will not forgive or condone or forget and we will not panic.' Secondly, to say to the Arab world, 'you want peace and we want peace, but just as the murder of Jews is liable to torpedo the peace, so, too, if you say that our reaction to terrorists is liable to torpedo the peace, you should begin with the cause and not the reaction.'

Q: The opposition would also probably say that history shows reprisal operations don't bring solutions but escalation, such as in the 1950's...

A: And if you raise your hands, does everything come right? I don't understand. What does history show? That if you're hit and you don't react, then everything comes right? What does history prove?

Q: History proved that reprisal operations then led to the Sinai Operation, for example, and didn't bring a political solution but only escalation.

A: Fine, after all, we're looking for a political solution. I also believe that terrorism will end when a political solution is found, and we are looking for a political solution. This operation did not come in place of a political solution, it was not intended as a substitute. But when someone constantly torpedos the political solution, this cart of torpedos has to be pushed aside.

Q: Minister Ezer Weizman opposed the Tunis operation, arguing that the timing of the operation was inappropriate and was liable to harm the continuation of the peace process with Egypt and Jordan. Could you comment on Weizman's reasoning9

A: In the first place, I am pleased that the Inner Cabinet isn't made up of ten yes-men. I would feel very bad if all ten members of the inner cabinet thought exactly alike on all issues. It is Minister Weizman's right to think for himself, to arrive at his own conclusions and to express them without fear. I believe this is honorable and acceptable. Now, every operation one launches has its own problems. There is no such thing as an operation without dangers or risks or restraints. You just have to decide. You can say that the timing today is inappropriate, but how do you know that next week the timing will be more appropriate? There is no such guarantee, no one can sense it. It's possible that next week the picture might look different; a week passes, things are forgotten. I've been watching Israeli TV reports on what's been going on in Tripoli: In the past 24 hours 500 people have been killed there, half the city has fled, the Syrians are on the rampage, a Soviet diplomat has been killed. Not that I'm so overwhelmed by all this, but in my view we had to take a step in order to say to the Arab world that our efforts towards peace cannot be interpreted to mean that our neck is on the chopping block.

Q: The Egyptian reaction was a sharp one. President Mubarak has suspended the Taba talks. How do you see the future of relations with Egypt as a result?

A: In the first place I would like to say, to President Mubarak's credit, for example in contrast to the prime minister of Italy, that he also condemned the murder in Larnaca. We mustn't forget that either. I understand the president's reaction from his point of view - although he also said that the peace process would not end. We must bear in mind that Israel-Egypt relations have undergone far more difficult tests, such as the air force's operation in a different direction, such as the Lebanon war. What is interesting - and on this I also received a message from Mubarak

Q: Could you tell us when?

A: About two or three weeks ago. He had spoken with Arafat. Arafat said, 'Me? Me and terrorists?' Incidentally, I just saw him on the TV news - I couldn't believe my eyes. He says, 'this was an organized terrorist operation.' The head of a terrorist organization is accusing the State of Israel of carrying out an organized terrorist operation. Mubarak said that Arafat denied having anything to do with [terrorist acts]. Then we seize eight persons from "Force 17" who are identified with a mission, with an intention to murder - and Arafat denies it. In my view, one of our central tasks today is to try to convince the Arab world - those who want to listen - that these things are organized by Arafat and his organization. Sometimes, you know, a bluff is very convenient; instead of coping with reality you accept a tale. In this instance we have every proof that it was Arafat, it was "Force 17," and we will also seek to explain to the Egyptians that this is the state of affairs.

Q: If Egypt suspended the Taba talks so quickly, then maybe Taba isn't so important to Egypt?

A: We are not looking for a suspension, but a solution, and we have to find a solution for Taba. We are also interested in improving relations with Egypt. We are not neutral here. We are not a girl who's being courted; it's not a matter of one courting the other. There is peace between us and Egypt. We want to bring the peace to the maximum possible, so it will serve as a model, and we are partners in this effort at improvement.

Q: What would you say to the senior Egyptian official who is quoted today in "Yediot Ahronot" as saying, "Shimon Peres disappointed Egypt with his decision to bomb Tunisia. How can you imagine that your air force will attack an Arab state that hasn't declared war on Israel, and we will conduct political negotiations with you?"

A: I can imagine that there is such a senior figure who is disappointed. Do you know what? I am also disappointed that the PLO is acting as it is, in contrast to the Egyptian assessment. Disappointments happen, they're part of life, it's not the end of the world, it's not the gist of policy. In general, there will be plenty of hitches on the road to peace and to settlements, there will be disappointments, and we have to be prepared for that.

Q: Do you intend to take any steps to enable the directors-general to go to Egypt in order to renew the Taba talks?

A: After things calm down a little, I definitely intend to renew the contacts, to explain things. I will explain what I feel: That this was not an act of aggression but an act of self-defense, that we had all the proof, that we didn't strike at an innocent, moderate state but at a nerve center of murder. I think these things can be explained, it may take a little time. But it's not the end of the world.

Q: There are some who say that the operation has aborted the efforts to integrate Hussein into the peace efforts, after you reacted positively to his speech at the U.N. Do you also thing so?

A: Look, a lot of people think the Jordan option is like a lollipop: First you lick it, then it's taken away. But we have to look at things as they really are. Jordan needs peace, Israel needs peace; Jordan suffers from terrorism, from the terrorism of Abu-Mussa, bombs go off there also, Jordanian diplomats are also murdered. We and Hussein alike want to be rid of the threat of war and to be freed of the oppression of terrorism: Both-things. I read Hussein's reaction very carefully - and incidentally, neither Hussein nor Mubarak said it would put an end to the peace process: It is a Jordanian interest, an Israeli interest. What are the alternatives? Do we have a different neighbor? Does he have a different neighbor? Does he want war? Do we want war? In fact, both he and we are battling for public opinion, including American public opinion; and he heard the American reaction. After all, the American reaction-wasn't intended exclusively for Israeli ears. The American spoke unequivocally, and Hussein is in the U.S. in order to gain American support.

Q: Did the Americans know about the operation in advance? Was the ambassador informed, or anyone else?

A: No one knew ahead of time - no foreigner knew ahead of time - and we tried to keep it a secret in Israel as well. I want to say unequivocally: We did not tell any American ahead of time. After the air force planes had completed their mission and were on their way home, we decided, in consultation with the defense minister, to inform the Americans for the first time that this mission had been executed. They were taken by surprise. You know, it's like the stories in the Six-Day War: I still remember that Nasser called Hussein and told him that U.S. bombers were taking part in the battles alongside Israel. There is absolutely no truth to the report that the Americans did the refuelling, they didn't even know we had planes in the air. It's absolutely false that the U.S. navy took part in the operation - it knew nothing - but neither did American statesmen know in advance in any way.

Q: How do you think the Hussein initiative can be advanced given the contradictory reactions of yourself and of Vice Prime Minister Shamir to King Hussein's U.N. speech. He said the speech was verbiage and contained nothing new, whereas you welcomed the vision of peace and the readiness for direct negotiations. Can the king's initiative be advanced given this conflict?

A: There is no point in denying that this government is composed of two viewpoints, two appraisals, two parties, and I'm never amazed that members of one party react in one way and members of another party in a different way. This is hardly some military secret that's not known here or abroad. But we have agreed on a common basis, which Mr. Shamir this evening reiterated at the U.N., to meet with a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation - and Mr. Shamir was accurate when he said: Representatives of the residents of the territories, and other representatives to be agreed upon, to sit without prior conditions in face-to-face negotiations. In fact, there was also an initiative of my own, which was announced in the Knesset and generated considerable reverberations. You can call them initiatives. Let us analyze the debate. In fact it has to do with three actual issues: The easiest one to explain is the international conference. What do the Jordanians and Palestinians say? 'We find it uncomfortable to meet with Israel in one fell swoop face to face in broad daylight and launch negotiations.' Although I don't understand why they have to be so bashful when it comes to peace and so liberated when it comes to war: When the Arab states went to war, did they also seek mediators, superpowers? They didn't. But that's the excuse. Now they say, let's meet under an "umbrella" or under "auspices." (Incidentally, Dr. Burg, who has both a sense of humor and knowledge, proved to us that Hussein's expression - "appropriate auspices" - actually has the same root as the custom on our festival of Sukkot, "Ushpizin.')

Now we say, 'do you know what? We are definitely ready for international accompaniment. But for an international accompaniment whereby both Israel and the other side will have equal conditions.' Hussein is proposing to bring in the five permanent members of the Security Council: Russia, China, England, France and the U.S. When it comes to the U.S., England and France, we have no objections. But Russia broke off relations, and I have said before and reiterate now: There are even Arab statesmen who have reached the conclusion that if the Russians don't renew diplomatic relations with Israel, they shouldn't be invited to an international conference. This is also the U.S. position.

Q: Mr. Peres, I must interrupt you here. You after all served in a government which took such pride in the Geneva Conference in 1973 - and who if not the Soviet Union was the chairman of that conference. So what happened?

A: You're right. We've gained experience since then. What was the result of the Geneva Conference? It was a futile exercise. And besides that, we're allowed to have second thoughts and new considerations. Israel has aged by 12 years since then. Why can't Israel say to the Russians, 'Do you want to serve as mediators, as a bridge? First of all, renew diplomatic relations.' What's wrong with that? Why do I have to emulate 1973? Policy isn't an emulation of precedents. I see that this stand of ours is gaining increasing support and understanding, certainly in the U.S., and if my ear is properly attuned, even the Soviet Union is beginning to be impressed by this reasoning.

The second issue is the PLO, and here let us speak clearly: If the Palestinians, in the form of the PLO, genuinely want to form a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, there are enough representatives in the territories who represent the will of the residents, authentic representatives who could be members of that delegation.

Q: You said in passing that the Soviet Union is becoming impressed by our stand. Do you find understanding for Israel's stand in the Soviet Union?

A: I can't say that. I spoke of an impression, that's not understanding. They are aware of the matter. We say to the USSR, 'we are not your enemies. Diplomatic relations are maintained even when there are differences of opinion. We are ready to open a dialogue, but one that is open and honorable. True, you are a far larger country. But where equality of rights is concerned, that doesn't have to do with the size of a country but with international agreement.' We will not go with the Russians unless they renew diplomatic relations with us openly, as is customary between states, without patronizing - and I believe this position has a chance. Of course, for us there is an equally important matter, and if I had to choose between the two: Between diplomatic relations and the opening of the gates [to Russian Jewry] I would opt for the opening of the gates. But if the Russians want to play a role, perhaps for them diplomatic relations take precedence.

Q: I would think that the sale of U.S. arms to Jordan - 40 F-16 planes, mobile Hawk missiles - is of great concern to Israel. Is there any prospect of blocking this deal in the Congress?

A: I can't speak about the situation in the Congress, I can speak about Israel's stand. I have to be very formal here. With respect to arms, Israel has two main arguments. The first is that Hussein hasn't annulled the state of war, and remains formally in a state of war with Israel. It's my impression that the Americans tried to get him to say something close to annulment of belligerency, but the farthest he would go was to annul the "belligerent environment," the belligerent weather, as it were. But we're not a meteorological station here, we are dealing with serious political matters. He wasn't ready to acquiesce in the American request: Not ours, theirs. Secondly, 40 advanced F-16 aircraft - true, they will arrive in three years' time, according to the Americans - can hit a lot of targets inside Israel. It is one more heavy burden on the country's strategic shoulders, on its economic situation. What's happening? The Arabs are constantly receiving weapons, and then we have to ask for parity in both arms and aid. And the mobile Hawk missiles also constitute a serious security problem.

Q: Summing up the Tunis operation, it has led to an improvement of relations within the government. The arguments and confrontations have been stilled, the political initiatives have been postponed for the time being. How long will it last?

A: The problem is: Unity for the sake of what? I am convinced that Israel is not embarking, and should not embark, on any path but that of peace. These things are serious and they haven't changed. Those who interfere and strike at us - get an answer. But all told, this government has a commitment to open a new leaf in the Middle East. And despite everything that's reported in the press, there is a slight shift in the Jordanian position; the shift is continuing over time, it's moving slowly - and it's quite possible that we will arrive at a point of encounter and we will meet with the Jordanians. I repeat what I have said: It is my great hope that if we arrive at the negotiating table with Jordan -and I hope we will - a united government will be there. We are not speaking now of parties or of gossip, but of the most central issue in our life: Peace and war. It is my hope that precisely this government - after all, they said we are making concessions and we're confused and we're incapable of taking decisions - what Israel demonstrated today is that it once more has (which we always knew) a first-class air force, a highly skilled IDF, a government capable of taking decisions, resolute when it's hit; but at the same time, just as it's resolute in its reactions, it is resolute in its hopes. And it is our hope to extricate the Middle East from the weapons, from the dangers, from terrorism, from war. That must be the central goal of our efforts.

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